Remembrances of wasps past

I don't much like wasps, but they aren't the worst of the stinging insects. Growing up on a farm, I developed a comprehensive hierarchy of stinging insects, at least of those I encountered as a child. Having no allergies to the little beasties, I ranked them based solely upon the pain their stings inflicted. Bumblebees were a joy to watch and easy to avoid, so they weren't much of a concern. Sweat bees barely counted as a nuisance. The ever-so-rare honey bee had a sting potent enough to avoid, but so long as they weren't encountered in large numbers they weren't a big deal. On the other end of the spectrum, I learned the hard way that I wanted no part of yellow jackets or, worse yet, hornets. Wasps occupied a middle ground: their stings hurt and the little buggers were amply aggressive, but they were by no means the worst of the stinging pantheon.

You can probably guess that I'm dwelling on stinging insects because spring has brought an abundance of wasps to the Benton Compound. I stepped on one of the damn things barefoot the other morning before I even had a cup of coffee. That was one hell of a pick-me-up, and it's not easy to go about your business with a stung big toe. Despite my general belief in co-existence with nature and broad aversion to pesticides, I'm more than willing to spray the many nests around our porch and eaves with the array of canisters I purchased this weekend. I've waged war on the little bastards the past couple of evenings. Cross your fingers--I think I've about wiped them out.

At least I have canisters of poison to use.

My first conscious memories of wasps are the great multitude of them that set up residence in the trailer my parents bought when I about kindergarten aged. The old farmhouse my father had grown up in just couldn't be maintained anymore. Walls and parts of the roof were collapsing on us by then, so my parents scrounged up the money to buy a used house trailer. The little metal box that roasted us every summer and froze us every winter was deemed a major improvement, which testifies to just how dilapidated the old house was.

The new-to-us house trailer had vertical metal siding, with large corrugations open at the bottom end of the exterior walls. Seemingly every wasp in the Ozarks flew into the openings to build a nest. When they started returning to their nests in the evening, mom would call my brother and I into the stifling trailer to be safe from the swarm.

By the time the summer reached its blistering peak, my mom must have issued an ultimatum to my father: kill those damn wasps. Killing all of those wasps would have been challenging under the best of circumstances due to their sheer number. My father did not have the best of circumstances. Whether it was because effective wasp killers did not yet exist or whether we couldn't afford them, I don't know, but the only wasp killer he had on hand was gasoline.

Dad was not, and is not, someone who tolerated heat. He spent most of the summers when I was young wearing nothing but a pair of oddly blue polyester shorts that I imagine were left over from his high school gym class (clothes were another item we couldn't easily afford back then). The few years since he'd purchased the shorts had expanded my father, leaving him looking like an unstylish but not at all bashful hillbilly imitating French sunbathers.

On the day dad launched his attack on our stinging housemates, he got up from the dinner table, finally worn down by my mother and the oppressive heat of the trailer we were trapped in at dusk. His jiggling flesh glistened with sweat in front of our constantly running box fan. He rummaged in the trash until he found an empty tin can from dinner. Without bothering to put on more clothes, he went outside. He moved through returning wasps at a brisk pace to our barn. I watched through the window as he decanted a bit of gasoline into his can from the jug he used to fill up the tractor. He carried his can of gas to the side of our trailer beneath my watching eyes. He took a deep breath and splashed the gas up a corrugation.

My young self thought he was very brave, protecting his family from the wasps like that. There was a certain nobility about the way he sprinted from the trailer as a haze of wasps erupted from the gassed corrugation, each one a flesh seeking missile. The setting sun glistened off of his bouncing belly as he dashed downhill through the hayfield around our trailer, disappearing from my eager eyes into the tall grass.

I don't know how many stings dad suffered. Before he returned to the trailer, mom sent my brother and I to our room to play. Mom might have hoped that we would be out of earshot from the profanity that she knew our Wasp Warrior would be screaming as he returned, but that hope was in vain.

I remember those wasps of my youth. I put on proper clothes before I go wasp hunting.